Collaboration has always been fundamental to widening access work.
Since the year 2000 there have been seven different collaborative widening access initiatives funded by successive governments. These initiatives while usually described as national have all in fact been based on regional partnerships.
Covid-19 presents unprecedented challenges for widening access and in particular outreach. Huge efforts are being made by the widening access community to innovate and adopt what was described recently in Wonkhe as a punk DIY ethos.
The chances however of widening access emerging stronger from Covid-19 are argued by Ellie Mulcahy on Wonkhe recently are very uncertain, given the model of collaboration that predominates now and the challenges that HE providers will face in working with schools and colleges over at least 2020-21.
Regional partnership working has been crucial to enabling universities and others to understand the local context which shapes the progression to HE or lack of it of those from lower socio-economic and other under-represented groups. Access agreements and their successors Access and Participation Plans have also secured a level of guaranteed commitment to widening access from providers.
However, as has been shown across numerous sectors a regional approach alone, combined with the actions of organisations acting individually, is not sufficient to deal with a challenge like Covid-19. Collaboration at the national level is required which cuts across regional boundaries to aim for efficiency in resource allocation and pools the broadest range of ideas to foster innovation.
The need for national collaboration in widening access work is urgent, which is why the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) is launching Uni4me. Uni4me is a new online hub which brings together over 300 online outreach activities (so far) from 50 HE providers and uni-connect partnerships.
Uni4me focuses on free, interactive activities including virtual courses in a range of subjects led by university academics, online tuition and support in core GCSE/A level academic subjects which aim to support learners who are at risk of falling behind their peers to maintain their academic performance. It also provides live events involving leading academics, students and specialist HE advisors alongside information sessions for parents/carers and virtual campus tours.
The aim of Uni4me is to provide a range of different content and support materials for learners and schools/colleges which will be broader than what any one partner can produce on their own. It is a coherent national response from the widening access community to the challenges of Covd-19.
Research undertaken by NEON with over 100 HE providers, also to be launched alongside Uni4me, shows that only a third of respondents expect to be working face to face in schools and colleges this year and many expect to that such work will be much reduced over the whole of 2020-21, if indeed it occurs at all.
Central to outreach work is the relationships that providers can build with schools and colleges. If these weaken, for whatever reason, building them again is very difficult. Online outreach is an essential part of maintaining these relationships and Uni4me represents a mechanism that makes it easier for such outreach to do this.
More and better makes us stronger
However, if widening access work and the outreach component of it is to emerge stronger through the Covid-19 era more national collaboration will be required. Uni4me needs to grow and more universities and Uni Connect partnerships need to commit to sharing their work through a coherent national platform.
A national approach from the Office for Students to supporting specific groups whose HE progress is already low and most at risk from the impact of Covid-19 such as looked after children, Gypsy, Romany, Traveller community learners and estranged students for example, would also be beneficial. More explicit linkage between what HE can do to support schools to address attainment gaps exacerbated by Covid-19 and new policy initiatives would also be welcome.
There is a significant opportunity for the HE sector via the outreach work done by HE student ambassadors to contribute to the recently announced National Tutoring Programme. This programme is also focused only at present at those under 16. Expanding it to 16-19 year olds in partnership with HE would be an efficient use of any new funds and channelling the efforts that providers are already putting into reaching this group.
For two decades policymakers have been shying away from collaboration in widening access work at the national level. Now is the time to embrace it.